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  China’s North Korean Pivot (Project-Syndicate 2013/7/8) - English


China’s North Korean Pivot


Project-Syndicate Jul. 8, 2013


BEIJING – After a spring of heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula, a flurry of
diplomatic activity in recent weeks has brought some hope of a meeting of the minds,
at least between China, South Korea, and the United States. But the emergence of
a viable consensus on how to minimize the security risks emanating from North Korea’s
mercurial leadership remains to be found.

This illustration is by Paul Lachine and comes from <a href="http://www.newsart.com">NewsArt.com</a>, and is the property of the NewsArt organization and of its artist. Reproducing this image is a violation of copyright law.

Illustration by Paul Lachine


After a reportedly tough meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vice Marshall
Choe Ryong-hae, one of the four members of North Korea’s ruling presidium, the US-China
summit in California took place with North Korea as one of the central points of
discussion. This was quickly followed by a Beijing summit between Xi and South Korean
President Park Geun-hye. The fact that Xi participated in all three meetings underscores
two truths: China’s policy toward North Korea is the key to a solution to the problems
posed by North Korea, and China may be actively searching for a new approach to its
wayward ally.

China’s interest in a new North Korea policy is not entirely new. After all, China’s
policy toward the country has been gradually moving in a more constructive direction
for the past two decades, reflecting China’s growing international prominence,
as well as its leaders’ cautious embrace of the global role that their country’s
new economic might has provided.

In the immediate post-Cold War period, China cooperated with other concerned parties
in the process of resolving the first North Korea nuclear crisis of 1993-1994;
but it tended to regard the North’s nuclear ambitions mainly as a bilateral issue
between North Korea and the US. President Bill Clinton seemed to agree, and adopted
a bilateral approach to the nuclear crisis, which resulted in the two countries’
Agreed Framework of 1994.


But China upgraded its role in the 2000’s. After North Korea’s enriched uranium
program triggered another crisis in late 2002, President George W. Bush wanted
to mobilize China’s influence in a more systematic way. But China’s leaders balked,
circumscribing their role severely. Though Chinese leaders became more active
by hosting the six-party talks, they still regarded their role as that of mediator
between the US and the North, rather than that of a party whose security interests
were seriously affected by events on the Korean Peninsula.


Immediately after the North’s second nuclear test in 2009, Chinese officials
undertook a review of their country’s North Korea policy and decided to separate
the nuclear issue from the overall bilateral relationship. Thus, former Prime Minister
Wen Jiabao visited Pyongyang in October 2009 and promised generous economic aid.
Chinese leaders may have believed that inducing the North to adopt the Chinese model
of economic opening would create a better political environment for denuclearization.

One result was a deepening of North Korea’s economic dependence on China.
But the big problem was that the North’s leadership apparently interpreted China’s
policy as a sign of unwillingness to pressure the North on nuclear matters. Indeed,
North Korean behavior became much more provocative, including an attack in 2010 that
sank the South Korean corvette Cheonan and another in which the South’s Yeonpyeong
Island was shelled.

Following this spring’s round of North Korean provocations, Xi appears to have
concluded that enough is enough. As a result, China’s North Korea policy has entered
a new stage.

Xi’s criticism of the North’s nuclear ambitions has become both unusually public
and blunt. Chinese leaders may still view North Korea as a strategic buffer state,
but China’s status as a global power is pushing them to view the North in a new way.
Former State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan was even reported to have said recently that
denuclearization is now a higher priority for China than stabilization of the Korean
Peninsula.

This approach should favor China’s global strategy, which is premised upon Xi’s
desire to build a new type of “major power” relationship between China and the US
(the Chinese government prefers “major power” to “great power,” probably in order
to highlight its stated renunciation of hegemonic ambition). Indeed, among the myriad
unresolved issues dividing the US and China, North Korea’s nuclear program is the
one most likely to impede mutual trust.


If the US and China are to avoid being steered by North Korea onto a collision course,
they probably have four or five years to pursue a joint strategy – a timetable
established by the point at which North Korea could have the technology to load
miniaturized nuclear warheads atop long-range missiles.


As the North approaches this point, the US will have to strengthen its missile defenses
in the western Pacific – areas close to China – in order to deter the North Korean
threat. The result, invariably, will be heightened Sino-US tension.


China has no interest in such an outcome. The long-term costs of a worsening security
confrontation with the US would exceed the short-term tactical benefits to be derived
from continuing to support the North as a buffer state, especially given China’s
deepening relationship with South Korea. Though Park’s visit to Beijing has not
closed the gap between the Chinese and South Korean approaches to the North Korean
nuclear issue, it does seem to have prepared the ground for closer coordination
between the two governments.


Those improved ties matter, because the time has come for China to rebalance its
traditional geostrategic interests with its role as a global leader. That calls for
a Chinese policy of disciplined engagement toward North Korea, without which an
internationally coordinated solution to the nuclear problem – and, with it,
the promise of more productive relations with the US and South Korea –
will be impossible.

*Source 
http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/waning-chinese-interest-in-supporting-north-korea-by-yoon-young-kwan


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